March 5 – PING!

Today’s factismal: In the past week, snow has fallen in every state except Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Even though the Northern Hemisphere is twenty-six days into spring, some places are still getting lots of wintery weather. This past week saw a major winter storm sweep through the central part of North America, dumping a mixture of cold air, sleet, snow, rain, and chaos along its path. The storm (nicknamed “Thor” by some wags) has piled up as much as two feet of snow in Kentucky, and more than an inch of rain in Dallas. The high winds and precipitation have caused airplanes to skid off the runway and stranded motorists across the nation. But perhaps the people most frustrated by it are the meteorologists.

Every dot is a weather station that has recorded precipitation n the past week (Image courtesy NOAA)

Every dot is a weather station that has recorded precipitation n the past week
(Image courtesy NOAA)

The reason that meteorologists get frustrated by major storms like this is because the data we have is almost but not quite good enough to help them predict exactly when and when and how much precipitation there will be. And the reason for that is because the surface of the Earth is cluttered with things like trees and houses and the occaissional mountain that blocks the radar meteorologists use; as a result, radar can only track the precipitation until it gets close to the ground. To see what actually happens on the ground, the meteorologist needs to be there – or to have someone else be there.

A six hour PING report (Image from PING website)

A six hour PING report
(Image from PING website)

And that’s where you come in. NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory has created an app called mPING (for “Precipitation Identification Near the Ground”); both Apple and Android versions are available. The way it works is simple: when you run into a bit of precipitation, you click the mPING icon, tell it what sort of precipitation you see, and go on your merry way. Your report is added to thousands of others and gets used to help improve our models of precipitation and to help predict where and when the next severe storm will head our way. To learn more, drift over to:

March 4 – The Tell-Tale Heart

Today’s factismal: A typical human heart moves about a third of a cup of blood through the body with each beat.

Ah, the human heart. Often derided as being frail and fragile, it is in fact one of our sturdiest organs. And no wonder, considering all of the trouble that we put it to. During a typical day, an adult’s heart will beat around 100,000 times. A kid’s heart works even harder; they will beat nearly 150,000 times each day! Add it up and over the course of a typical lifetime, a human heart will beat nearly 2.5 billion times.

Leonardo da Vicni's drawing of the human heart (Image courtesy Leonardo)

Leonardo da Vicni’s drawing of the human heart
(Image courtesy Leonardo)

The heart works so hard because it has to. The heart drives the circulatory system that delivers food and oxygen throughout the body and takes wastes and carbon dioxide away to be disposed of. The blood tissue will speed from your heart to your brain and back in just eight seconds; to reach your toes and get back takes just 16 seconds. Though you’ve got just about one and a half gallons of blood in your body, it is used over and over again. Each beat of an adult’s heart moves about a third cup of blood. Over the course of a day, your heart will pump nearly 2,000 gallons of blood throughout your body.

But anything that works that hard can sometimes have problems and the heart is no exception. Sometimes the valves in the heart wear out or just don’t close properly, allowing blood to leak through and reducing the flow; this is called valvular heart disease. Sometimes the heart loses its rhythm and beats irregularly; this is called an arrhythmia. Sometimes the heart doesn’t get enough blood to operate properly; this is called a myocardial infarction or “heart attack”.

Luckily, we know a lot about how to prevent these things from happening. If you get as little as thirty minutes of exercise (such as walking) each day, you’ll cut your chances of getting one of these problems by about 10%. Similarly, by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lean in alcohol and salt, you can reduce your chances of getting heart disease by nearly 20%.

Of course, there is more to having a healthy heart than just diet and exercise; genetics and other factors also play a part. And right now, a group of scientists are putting together a “big data” experiment to see just how much each of these things contributes to a healthy heart. At Health eHeart (get it?) they are asking for volunteers to take part in a study that will track participants for ten years. Every six months they’ll ask you to fill out a questionnaire on your health and will ask you to contribute information on your weight and activity level; some participants may also be given the opportunity to do cool things like wear a Holter monitor for a week or have a genetic sample taken. To join in on the fun, head over to:

March 3 – Moon Madness

Today’s factismal: 3753 Cruithne does not orbit the Earth.

Of late, there have been a lot of blog posts (even, sadly, on supposedly “science oriented” websites) claiming that Earth has a “second moon” named 3753 Cruithne (pronounced “CREW-eee-nuh”; it is the name of a Pictish king). As is often the case with things found on the internet, the truth is both less and more interesting. First, the less interesting part: 3753 Cruithne is not a moon of the Earth or any other planet; instead, it orbits the Sun all by itself. This may sound like nitpicking, but it is an essential part of the definition of the word “Moon”. Until 1655, everything that we saw in the sky was either a star, or a comet, or a planet with the sole exception of the Moon. Galileo’s discovery of four new things orbiting Jupiter was taken in stride; those things were planets according to the astronomers (even though Galileo called them stars). But in 1655, they started seeing planets orbiting Saturn as well. Before long, Saturn had five planets and a ring orbiting it while Jupiter’s planet count grew to ten. So the astronomers decided that they would redefine the word planet. If it was big enough to see and orbited the Sun, it was a planet. If it was big enough to see and orbited another planet, it was a moon. And so, because the asteroid 3753 Cruithne orbits the Sun and not the Earth, it isn’t a moon. (It isn’t a planet because it isn’t big enough; at just three miles across, it is too small to be round.)

So where did all of this nonsense about 3753 Cruithne being a second moon of the Earth get started? With the astronomers, of course. You see, astronomers love to think about what things look like, especially orbits. And they started looking at the orbits of Near Earth objects (i.e., things that had an orbit similar to Earth’s) and found several that had amusing (to the astronomers) orbits. If you flew abovethe Sun and watched 3753 Cruithne orbit, you would see it moving out toward Mars and back in toward Venus, crossing Earth’s orbit twice on each trip. And, thanks to the odd shape of 3753 Cruithne’s orbit, it actually takes about a year to complete each go-round. It would look something like this:

3753 Cruithne's orbit as seen from above the Sun (Image courtesy Jecowa)

3753 Cruithne’s orbit as seen from above the Sun
(Image courtesy Jecowa)

But if you stand on Earth and watch 3753 Cruithne orbit, it looks much different. Because Earth passes 3753 Cruithne in its orbit, it appears that the asteroid is making a “horseshoe” in space. So the astronomers giggled for a while about some asteroids being close enough for horseshoes and left it there. Which is where the internet found it. Unfortunately, most of the people on the internet aren’t astronomers. (You are shocked, I know.) As a result, they don’t know that the horseshoe “orbit” of 3753 Cruithne only happens when you look at the asteroid from the moving Earth; that it is a geocentric view. Since we know that the heliocentric view is much closer to reality, using a geocentric one to claim that an asteroid is the Earth’s second moon makes about as much sense as claiming that the Sun orbits the Earth. And 3753 Cruithne is hardly the only asteroid to look like it is orbiting Earth when it isn’t; just last year, 2014 OL339 was shown to also have a horseshoe orbit.

When viewed from Earth, it appears that 3753 Cruithne orbits us (as does everything else) (Image courtesy Jacowa)

When viewed from Earth, it appears that 3753 Cruithne (and everything else) orbits us
(Image courtesy Jecowa)

But that isn’t to say that the Earth doesn’t have a second moon every once in a while. (This is where life gets even more interesting than the internet thinks it is.) Due to the odd orbital interactions of all of the various bits of junk out there, every so often a small asteroid will get trapped in orbit around the Earth for a few days or a few weeks or a few years. When this happens, Earth truly does have a “second moon”; because these asteroids aren’t trapped by Earth’s gravity and are just “passing through”, they are referred to as coorbiting asteroids. In 1999, asteroid 2003 YN107 began a coorbit of Earth that lasted for seven years. And some experts estimate that we have a small, temporary “second moon” almost all the time!

The path of Earth's true "second moon" (Image courtesy NASA)

The path of Earth’s true “second moon”
(Image courtesy NASA)

So why aren’t we sure about how often the Earth has a “second moon” (even if it never is 3753 Cruithne)? Simply because asteroids are small and space is vast. As anyone who has ever tried to find a remote control in a room has discovered, it can take a long time to locate something if it is very small compared to the room that you are looking in. But having more people looking can help. And that’s where you can join in on the fun! The Asteroid Survey is looking for folks who are looking to be looking for asteroids! (Here’s looking at you, KD!) You’ll sort through photos, identifying objects as stars, asteroids, or “junk”. And you’ll be helping to identify the millions of bits of junk that fly through our Solar System and give us our second moons. To join in on the fun, orbit over to:

March 2 – Glaring At The Kindle

Today’s factismal: A group of friendly adults cats is a clowder, a group of unfriendly adult cats is a glaring, and a group of kittens is a kindle.

If you were to take a guess, which do you think there are more of in the USA – pet dogs or pet cats? Believe it or not, there are slightly more pet cats (about 96 million) than there are pet dogs (about 83 million). Of course, the cat owners shouldn’t get too uppity; there are 145 million pet fish! Now guess which we have more of – stray dogs or feral cats? Believe it or not, we simply don’t know. The number of feral cats is estimated at between 70 million and 100 million; the number of stray dogs is about the same.

Watch out - she's a killer! (My camera)

Watch out – she’s a killer!
(My camera)

Part of the reason for this is because both dogs and cats can adapt easily to being feral. They are capable hunters and have plenty of places where they can shelter. And part of the reason for this is because both dogs and cats reproduce like rabbits; a single mother dog and her brood can add 67,000 puppies to the world in six years. Cat lovers, your best friend is even worse; a single mother cat can easily give birth to over 100 kittens in her lifetime and can have a family of more than 420,000! Currently, many groups are attempting to reduce this problem by instituting “Trap-Neuter-Return” programs that catch feral dogs and cats, neuter them, and them release them back into the wild. (Why not put them up for adoption? Sadly, most feral animals cannot be tamed after they reach adulthood – sort of like teenagers.)

This feral cat was adopted as a kitten and so was not returned after she was spayed (My camera)

This feral cat was adopted as a kitten and so was not returned after she was spayed
(My camera)

Needless to say, having that many new predators running around is not great news for their prey. Some experts estimate that feral cats kill almost four billion  birds and about 20 billion small mammals each year. Other experts think that the previous experts are bird brains and place the total toll much lower. The reason that there is such disagreement is because even though we’ve been living with cats for nearly 10,000 years now, we don’t really know much about how far they roam and what they do while they are out (again with the teenagers). But there is a citizen science project that is looking to change all that. The Cat Tracker project is asking volunteers to put a GPS on their cats before they let them outside and to share the data with the scientists. A select few participants will also be asked to mail in hair samples from their cat; an isotopic analysis of the hair will tell the scientists what (or who) the cats have been eating. To learn more about the project, slink over to:

February 28 – Free Falling

In this week’s Secret Science Society adventure, Mary and Peter discover what swimming pools, swing sets, and astronauts all have in common.

For most kids, the period right after lunchtime was spent fighting off sleep and boredom. But that was never a problem for Peter and Mary because that was when their favorite class (science) was taught by their favorite teacher (Mr. Medes). So they would eagerly finish their lunch and head into the classroom early, just to see what Mr. Medes had planned for the day’s lesson. Today was no exception; actually, Peter found it easier than usual to finish lunch early given what Mary was eating.

“Ugh! How can you stand eating that?” he asked.

“What’s the matter with peanut butter and bologna sandwiches?” Mary replied. “I don’t make fun of your tofu crunch. Anyhow, we astronauts need to be able to eat almost anything.”

“No, you need to be able to keep it down once you are in space,” Peter retorted. “I wonder what that feels like?”

“Dunno. But let’s go ask Mr. Medes; he can probably tell us.” The two gathered up the debris from their lunches, sorted out the recyclables before depositing them in the appropriate bins, and headed to class.

“Welcome, welcome!” aid Mr. Medes. “You are just in time! I need someone to help me water the hydroponics lab.”

Peter and Mary grabbed a couple of watering cans and filled them with water. As they wandered around the room filling the various containers filled with plants, water, and the occasional fish, Peter asked the question that was on both their minds. “Mr. Medes, what is zero gravity? What does it feel like?”

“That’s an interesting question. Would you believe me if I told you that you’ve already felt it?”

“No way!” Mary said. “We don’t have a zero gravity room!”

“Neither does NASA; we cannot control gravity, no matter what TV shows and movies say,” was Mr. Medes calm reply. “Instead, NASA simulates zero gravity, or ‘zero G’ for short. But we need to see what zero G looks like before you can understand how the simulations work.”

“How will we do that?” Peter asked.

“Simple. Let me grab a paper cup and I’ll show you.” Mr. Medes rummaged through his supply cabinet for a moment before coming up with a paper cup and a pencil. “For the first part of the experiment, let’s pour some water into a paper cup. What will happen?”

“That’s easy,” Mary replied scornfully. “The water will stay in the cup.”

“Right. But why?”

“Because gravity holds it in!” Peter said.

“Right again. Now let’s poke a hole in the bottom of the paper cup using the pencil. What will happen next?”

“Gravity will pull the water out of the cup through the hole,” Mary answered.

“Let’s see,” said Mr. Medes. Holding the paper cup over the sink, he punched a hole in the bottom. As soon as he removed the pencil, water started to gush out the bottom. “You are right. Gravity pulls down on the water and the cup. But, because the cup is stationary, only the water can move. Now let’s see what happens in zero gravity.”

Putting his finger over the hole in the bottom of the cup, Mr. Medes refilled it with water. “I’m going to take my finger away from the hole and let go of the cup. What will happen?”

“The cup will fall,” Peter said.

“And the water will run out,” Mary added.

“Let’s see if you are right,” Mr. Medes replied. “On the count of three. One, two…”

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!






“Three!” Mr. Medes removed his finger from the bottom of the cup and let go. Both Mary and Peter watched in astonishment as the cup fell and the water stayed inside all the way down.

“Hey! What happened?” Peter demanded.

“That was zero G in action,” Mr. Medes replied. “Gravity pulled down on the water and the cup together at the same rate. Because the water and the cup were moving together, the water stayed inside the cup.”

“But what does that tell us about zero G?” Mary asked.

“Do you remember the other name for zero G?” Mr. Medes asked.

“Free fall!” the two chorused as they began to understand.

“Right! Most scientists prefer to call it free fall because gravity is still there; you are just freely falling.”

“So free fall feels like,” Peter began.

“Falling freely!” Mary finished. “So if we jump, we are in free fall!”

“Right again,” Mr. Medes said. “But NASA doesn’t like to make its astronauts jump up and down. In the first place, it looks silly. And, more importantly, you don’t get a very long period to practice in.”

“So what do they use?” Mary asked.

“Well, for big things, they use a swimming pool. By adding the right amount of weights, they can make the astronauts and their tools ‘neutrally buoyant'; that is, they neither rise to the top of the pool nor sink to the bottom. They call the place the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.”

“That must be a big pool!” Peter said.

“The largest in the world!” Mr. Medes replied. “But that doesn’t tell astronauts what real zero gravity feels like. Only freely falling can do that. So they take the astronauts up in a modified airplane and fly a path like a roller coaster. As the plane falls toward the ground on a long parabolic arc, everything inside it is falling at the same rate and so they are in free fall. But then they have to pull up to avoid hitting the ground and everything feels a couple of Gs of acceleration.”

“Wow! Is that the plane that they call ‘The Vomit Comet’?” Mary asked.

“Yes, it is. And can you think of something here at school that takes you on a long smooth arc?”

Mary puzzled over it for a moment before saying “swing sets!”

“Right again!” Mr. Medes smiled down at them. “As you swing back and forth, you go over a path much like the one flown by the Vomit Comet. At the bottom, you are changing your direction of movement from down to up. You feel that as a little extra tugging on you. And at either end, you are in free fall for just a moment.”

Glancing at the clock, he added “And you have just enough time before class starts to go try it out if you want to.”

Not needing a second hint, the two ran out of the room to practice being astronauts.

February 27 – Look! Up In The Sky!

Today’s factismal: 600 trillion trillion particles from the Sun hit the Earth every second!

We all know and love the Sun. Powered by fusion, it gives off light which warms the Earth and powers the photosynthesis that is the root of nearly all life on the planet. But the Sun does more than shower us with photons; it also sprays the Earth and everything else in the neighborhood with the byproducts of its fusion reaction. Those particles include neutrons, protons, helium-3 nuclei and assorted other odd bits (including the neutrino which was so odd that it powered three different Nobel prizes!).

A sounding rocket launching into the aurora to study upper atmosphere dynamics (Image courtesy NASA)

A sounding rocket launching into the aurora to study upper atmosphere dynamics
(Image courtesy NASA)

Those particles have a variety of effects on the Earth. They help create rain clouds. They distort our compass headings with potentially disastrous effects. They short out our electrical grids. And, most spectacularly, they power the aurora (aka the “Northern Lights” even though they also appear in the Southern hemisphere). Best seen from above 45°, the aurora is an amazing example of physics in action. The charged particles given off by the Sun are trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field and funneled down into the upper atmosphere where they ionize different atoms, giving the aurora its characteristic eerie glow. The color of the glow tells which element was ionized; green is mostly oxygen as a molecule (O2), blue is mostly nitrogen as a molecule (N2), and red is usually atomic oxygen (O).

The aurora as seen from the ISS (Image courtesy NASA)

The aurora as seen from the ISS
(Image courtesy NASA)

But while we know how the aurora works in general, there are still a lot of details to be worked out. And that means that there is a lot of data that is needed – which is where you come in! (Or go out, as the case may be…) You see, one of the hardest things to quantify is the extent of the aurora. But that is also one of the most important things to know. So, in order to help discover how the aurora changes size over time, scientists have launched the Aurorasuarus (get it?) site. Once you’re registered, you just go out at night and let them know if you saw the aurora or not. So you get to see an amazing cosmic spectacle and the scientists get more data – win-win! To participate, shine a light at:

February 26 – A River Divided Cannot Stand

Today’s factismal: The Republican River is named for the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived beside it.

The Republican River is a beautiful tributary that flows through the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas before it joins the Kansas River and flows on down to the Gulf of Mexico. At a mere 453 miles long, it isn’t America’s longest river and with just 848 cubic feet of water per second moving through it, it certainly isn’t America’s biggest. But what the Republican River just might be is America’s most adjudicated river. That’s because the Republican River was the center of a lawsuit that went all the way from the local courts up to the US Supreme Court. More about that in a moment.

Long before it was the center of a lawsuit, the Republican River was the center of the lives of the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived on its banks in what would become Kansas and Nebraska. This tribe would come to be known as the Republican Indians,  for reasons that are now obscure. This matrilineal group used the river for food, for water, and for transport for centuries before the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped by to say hello in 1804. Many of them continue to live there today, even though the river is somewhat less full than it was back when their grandfathers’ grandfathers lived there.

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others) (Image courtesy NASA)

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others)
(Image courtesy NASA)

The reason that it is less full is also the reason for the lawsuit. As is the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), there are more people that want to use the water from the river than the river can support. And, as has been the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), the folks downstream have sued the ones upstream to get their fair share of the water. What was unusual in this case is that the downstream folks won. Usually, the people upstream have a nearly unlimited right to use the water as they choose, but in this case the states of Nebraska and Kansas had signed a compact defining how much water each was entitled to. The Supreme Court agreed that the compact had been violated (though they disagreed on how much it had been violated) and found for Kansas, fining Nebraska $5.5 million dollars.

Now if you’d like to get involved in helping out the folks downstream from where you live, you have a couple of choices. You can wait for them to file a lawsuit or you can do what you can to conserve water where you live. And one part of that would be to join a “Stream Team” like the one in Texas. These folks go out and measure the amount of water flowing in their streams, so they can help scientists and farmers plan water usage; they also do stream clean-ups and bioblitzes to help improve the water quality and understand what wildlife their stream supports. To join them, flow over to their page: